Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has faced criticism from people who should be condemning the president’s behaviour, says Makhudu Sefara.
Johannesburg - In the celebrated movie Tsotsi, some actors quarrel over decency to a point that one of them asks: you wanna talk about decency? Can you even spell decency? And they go on to misspell it. To great amusement, of course.
It is this scene featuring life in a squatter camp that came to mind as I read the Nkandla report and, importantly, observed reactions to it by disparate sections of the populace.
It is South Africans’ reactions to Nkandla that has gripped me, perhaps a bit more than WhatsApp messages between Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp early this week.
Many saw the Nkandla report as a smoking gun against President Jacob Zuma. Others rubbished it as the work of anti-ANC agents bent on undermining Zuma’s incredibly amazing leadership of our country.
Opposition parties got excited, spoke of and initiated impeachment proceedings. Let me not waste time on this: impeachment proceedings against Zuma, though merited, will not succeed. It’s meant to be political showmanship – a good spectacle to have ahead of an election. The DA is merely doing this to score political points. They are being politicians and that is fine and well.
It’s like promising to create millions of jobs when you know your first message after elections will be that government can only create an enabling environment for business to create jobs. It’s a promise that will not be fulfilled. Just like the DA can’t possibly impeach Zuma with the limited numbers they have in parliament.
Now, reactions by the ANC Youth League, which said Public Protector Thuli Madonsela should resign, and Buti Manamela in the SACP, who reminded all and sundry that Madonsela was not God, were most interesting. The ANCYL would have surprised me had it reacted in a responsible manner. To express disappointment against the youth league is to suggest it was, in the first place, expected to be measured or prove possessed of higher levels of prudence in its response to Madonsela’s report. How silly. Further, some might venture to say its reaction is consistent with what others say is the “what would Julius Malema have done syndrome”.
Manamela says Thuli is not God and, later on, ANC Northern Cape leader John Block, in a different context, says walking with Zuma is like walking with God. Oh God. The return of Jesus, we must ask Zuma, must be around the corner, not so?
Manamela was correct to say there should be debates about Madonsela’s reports.
But he was wrong to rubbish her and, if I heard him well, also make a cheap attempt to incite people to undermine her office.
The principle that should guide us is this: Madonsela’s reports aren’t and should never be beyond society’s debates.
Her judgments, as Pierre de Vos correctly pointed out the other day, carry the weight of high court judgments. We know judgments get debated and or taken on review – as Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson of the fisheries department is doing.
As a society, we have a responsibility not to rubbish Madonsela’s reports simply because we disagree with her. Her judgments can be contested. But we should also accept that her findings carry much weight because they went through a process of distillation.
Many have said how Madonsela being able to investigate the extravagance at the president’s home in Nkandla is proof of democracy at work. To a point. Democracy at work, I would like to believe, is when so much money is not spent in one man’s yard and, where these excesses occur, there are consequences.
But in a society where you have the likes of ANC parliamentary Chief Whip Stone Sizani accusing Madonsela of thinking herself above parliament, one must stop and wonder. In a normal society, someone like Sizani ought to be ashamed of himself for even contemplating uttering such nonsense.
Shame, some scholars have said, is the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of disgraceful, ridiculous or regrettable conduct that has the potential to eat your soul.
On the psychology of shame, Gershen Kaufman teaches that “shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within”. In brief, too much of it can cause destructive negative self perception.
Its absence can also be destructive. It could lead to shamelessness. What we see in our politics is an inability by our leaders to strike a necessary level of balance between shame and shamelessness.
Politicians like Humphrey Mmemezi – that ANC leader, if that is not to insult other leaders, who used our taxes to buy himself and his family baked beans and burgers at McDonald’s, has behaved dishonourably but exhibits no shame. What we need in our politics, as was the case in Tsotsi, is decency.
We need politicians who will accept that, with the correct dose of shame inhabiting their souls, it is shameful to spend R200 million on a house. This should move them to apologise to the country and take concrete steps to atone. We need politicians who will say it is shameful to abuse government-issued credit cards for baked beans and burgers and offer sincere apologies.
To pretend as if no apology is due to the citizenry is the height of unadulterated arrogance, pegged on shamelessness.
This is why Sizani ought to see it is not only wrong to haul Madonsela over the coals while saying nothing about the unconscionable expenditure itself, but downright shameful.
He is concerned instead of the need to have Madonsela appear before Parliament ostensibly to be grilled for having the temerity to express and publish findings of the nature she published about Zuma.
What Sizani should be telling us is how Parliament will make sure that Zuma repays it. He cares more about being seen to be protecting the leader than caring about the poor. This is behaviour that must induce shame.
But what happens when our conscience falls woefully silent? Do we become surprised when our school kids assault their teachers using broomsticks? Do we become surprised when churchmen say Madonsela is possessed of evil and should leave SABC’s Hlaudi Motsoeneng alone?
Plato teaches that “the first and best victory is to conquer self; to be conquered by self is of all things most shameful and vile”. The dearth of shame in our politics – and our lives in general – must worry us all.
* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak